Offensive question marks aside, defense remains the staple at San Diego State

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Beginning on October 3rd and running up until November 14th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2014-2015 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Having lost leading scorers Jamaal Franklin and Chase Tapley at the end of the 2012-13 season, San Diego State wasn’t in many conversations when it came to picking who would win the Mountain West in 2013-14. In Franklin and Tapley the Aztecs lost a combined 30.4 points, 12.7 rebounds and 6.0 assists per game, and they were picked to finish fourth in the conference’s preseason media poll as a result. With San Diego State well on its way to putting together one of the nation’s best recruiting classes (ranked 17th by Rivals.com), 2014-15 was seen as the year in which the Aztecs would make a run at Mountain West supremacy with 2013-14 being one of transition.

San Diego State had no desire to subscribe to such thoughts, and with Mountain West Player of the Year Xavier Thames leading the way the Aztecs won 31 games, a regular season conference title and reached the Sweet 16.

“None of it mattered,” junior forward Winston Shepard told NBCSports.com last week when asked how much attention the Aztecs paid to last year’s predictions. “[The prognosticators] weren’t with us every day, and last year they didn’t see how hard we worked. Last season was great; we had a team that had great chemistry and got along and didn’t have to deal with any outside influences. Last year was great for us, and I was glad to be a part of it.”

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San Diego State enters the 2014-15 season as a early favorites to win what’s expected to be a wide-open Mountain West race, with their being seven teams that could conceivably take the crown. But the Aztecs have a significant question to answer as they prepare for that run. The question: how will they account for the loss of Xavier Thames?

After averaging 9.5 points, 2.7 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game as a junior, Thames emerged as one of the best players in America as a senior. Thames averaged 17.5 points, 2.9 rebounds and 3.2 assists per contest, and amongst players who factored into at least 24 percent his their team’s possessions he posted the best offensive rating in the Mountain West (120.0) per kenpom.com. Add in the leadership Thames provided, and that’s an awful lot to account for moving forward.

San Diego State returns three of its top five scorers from last season, led by Shepard who averaged 11.7 points to go along with 4.9 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game as a sophomore. From a versatility standpoint Shepard may be the best option to take over the role of chief playmaker for the Aztecs, with there being multiple options besides him who are capable of making teams pay in the pick and roll situations that were a staple of the SDSU attack a season ago. But in order for Shepard to take another step forward, he has to earn the respect of opponents in one particular area.

“I have to be able to knock down open jump shots,” Shepard noted. “I don’t think I have to be as good of a jump shooter as X was, because that was a bigger part of his game, but I definitely have to be able to knock down shots. I think that will open up my game.”

To Shepard’s point he shot just 18.4% from three last season, and according to hoop-math.com he struggled with two-point jumpers as well. Shepard made just 29.9% of those attempts, and nearly half of his 330 field goal attempts (164) were two-point jumpers. While no one would complain if Shepard emerged as an elite marksman from the perimeter, the fact of the matter is that becoming a consistent shooter when left alone would do wonders for his game and what he’s able to contribute.

Accounting for Thames’ departure on the perimeter won’t be the responsibility of just one player, even with the steps Shepard has taken to improve his game. Dwayne Polee II, who played the best basketball of his college career over the final month of last season, is expected to figure more prominently in the San Diego State attack and senior Aqeel Quinn and sophomores Matt Shrigley and Dakarai Allen will all have opportunities to earn more chances themselves. Add in freshmen Kevin Zabo and Trey Kell, and San Diego State won’t lack for options on the perimeter.

The offensive end is where San Diego State’s toughest questions lie, with this group poised to pick up where they left off defensively. Last season, the Aztecs were one of the best defensive teams in the nation, limiting opponents to 38.6% shooting from the field and 28.8% from three. Both numbers were tops in the Mountain West, and the Aztecs also led the conference in steals and turnover margin. And because of that defense, the Aztecs were undefeated in games in which they’ve scored 65 points or more (24-0).

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Skylar Spencer averaged 2.5 bpg last season (Getty Images)

In recent years San Diego State has consistently put together teams that have both length and athleticism, two traits that have served them well defensively. What will also help the Aztecs is the addition of Arizona transfer Angelo Chol, who’s eligible after sitting out last season per NCAA transfer rules and is bigger and more athletic than the departed Josh Davis. With Davis, who led the team in rebounding (10.1 rpg), moving on, Chol and Skylar Spencer will be asked to lead the way inside and the feeling is that they’re more than ready for the responsibility.

Spencer started all 36 games last season, blocking 2.5 shots per game and establishing a good rapport with Thames in San Diego State’s pick and roll action. And according to Shepard, not only has the big man improved offensively but they’ve also worked hard to build a similar connection in advance of the upcoming season.

“He’s become much better on the block offensively,” Shepard said of Spencer. “Everybody knows what we’re going to get from him on the defensive end. He’s a great shot-blocker, and that allows us to pressure people on the perimeter because we know he’s back there. He’s a great finisher, and me and him are developing good chemistry in the pick and roll.”

San Diego State will also have freshmen Zylan Cheatham and Malik Pope to call upon in the front court, with the latter being a 6-foot-10 forward who’s skilled enough to score from just about anywhere on the court. In short, San Diego State has a lot of possibilities when it comes to the task of accounting for what Thames and Davis provided them last season but there are also questions offensively. Which of those talented players takes that step? Can they find enough perimeter shooting to open up lanes to the basket?

That remains to be seen, but what is known is the fact that Fisher’s teams have been tough to crack on the other end of the floor. And if that continues to be the case, San Diego State is more than capable of defending their Mountain West regular season title.

“Our defense will always be our staple,” noted Shepard. “We’ll win a lot of games just by defending well, but I think we’ll surprise some people on the offensive end. Some of our older guys have taken steps forward, so I think we’ll be a better offensive team and that will give us better balance.”

Richards, Quickley lead No. 15 Kentucky to OT win at No. 18 Texas Tech

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Nick Richards hit two free throws with 10 seconds left on the clock and Ashton Hagans managed to strip Davide Moretti on the ensuing possession as No. 15 Kentucky went into Lubbock and knocked off No. 18 Texas Tech, 76-74, in a thrilling overtime battle.

Richards finished the night with 25 pints, 14 boards and four blocks while shooting 7-for-10 from the floor and 11-for-14 from three. Immanuel Quickley chipped in with 21 points for the Wildcats, who shot 7-for-15 from three and won despite 15 combined turnovers from their three starting guards.

Kyler Edwards led the way for Texas Tech with 18 points and seven boards, but the Red Raiders shot just 3-for-19 from beyond the arc and never could figure out an answer to Richards’ in the paint.

Dotson, Azubuike lead No. 3 Kansas past Tennessee 74-68

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LAWRENCE, Kan. — Devon Dotson scored 22 points, Udoka Azubuike added 18 and No. 3 Kansas beat Tennessee 74-68 Saturday in the Big 12/SEC Challenge.

Azubuike was the lone big man for the Jayhawks (16-3) after Silvio De Sousa was suspended 12 games and David McCormack banned five for their roles in a brawl Tuesday against Kansas State.

After Azubuike went to the bench with two fouls early, Yves Pons hit consecutive 3-pointers to put the Volunteers (12-7) on a 14-2 run for a 20-13 lead. Kansas answered when Azubuike checked back in, stringing together a 12-0 run en route to a 37-30 lead at halftime.

Azubuike finished with 11 rebounds and four blocks.

Pons led the Volunteers with 24 points, and Jordan Bowden came alive early in the second half, knocking down three 3-pointers and finishing with 19 points after a scoreless first half.

Tennessee pulled within three late in the second half, but Azubuike had a block and hit four free throws late to keep the Volunteers in check.

BIG PICTURE

Kansas: The pressure will stay on Azubuike, whose early foul trouble stalled Kansas’ offense and allowed for a substantial Volunteer run.

Tennessee: Only three Volunteers – Pons, Santiago Vescovi and John Fulkerson – scored in the first half, and Tennessee turned the ball over 15 times. Despite the offensive struggles, the Volunteers were able to stay within arms’ length.

UP NEXT

Kansas: The Jayhawks head to Stillwater, Oklahoma, on Monday to take on Oklahoma State.

Tennessee: The Vols host Texas A&M on Tuesday.

Bubble Banter: It’s that time of year again!

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It’s getting to be that time of year.

Bubble Banter is back, baby!

Over the course of the next three days, we are going to be diving headlong into bubble chatter right here, breaking down every single team that is on or near the bubble for the NCAA tournament Field of 68. This, of course, is according to our Dave Ommen, who sent me a list of all the bubble teams. Our cut-off, at least for this conversation, is teams that currently sit as a No. 9 seed or better in the most recent bracket that we released.

Why?

Because — with the notable exception of Ohio State — it is difficult to see how any of those teams can end up out of the NCAA tournament before our next bracket projection gets published on Monday.

So, you know, they’re not currently on the bubble.

Anyway, come back throughout the weekend to see who the winners and the losers are and what it means for their standing in regards to the cut line.

WINNERS

PURDUE (NET: 37, NBC: Off the bubble): Purdue’s schizophrenic January continued on Friday with a blowout win over Wisconsin (30) at home. The Boilermakers have lost four of their last six, and the two wins were utterly dominant wins over the Badgers and Michigan State (10). Their 11-9 (4-5) record isn’t pretty, but three Quad 1 wins and just one Quad 3 loss — at Nebraska (165) — is enough to keep them in the mix.

NORTH CAROLINA (NET: 113, NBC: Off the bubble): The Tar Heels are still in the mix for the NCAA tournament for one, simple fact: All of their worst losses have come without Cole Anthony, and it appears that Anthony will be returning to the team at some point. After beating Miami, UNC is now 3-7 without him and 6-3 with him on the floor. They’ve beaten Alabama (38) on a neutral court, they’ve beaten Oregon (17) on a neutral court and all three of their losses with Anthony are Quad 1 losses. Remember, they still play four top ten teams during the regular season. They’ll have chances, and if they can get hot with Anthony back, they’ve got a shot.

OKLAHOMA (NET: 47, NBC: Play-in game): The Sooners have put themselves in a pretty good spot after knocking off Mississippi State (52) on Saturday. They’re 13-6 overall and all six of their losses are of the Quad 1 variety. Throw in a pair of Quad 1 wins — Minnesota (39) on a neutral and Texas (67) on the road — and five Quad 2 wins, and this is a good start. With six games left against Kansas, Baylor, West Virginia and Texas Tech, there are plenty of resume-boosting wins available.

SYRACUSE (NET: 66, NBC: Off the bubble): The Orange are starting to play like a top five team in the ACC this season. On Saturday, they knocked off Pitt in the Carrier Dome, pushing them to 6-3 in the league and 13-7 overall. They do have a questionable home loss to Notre Dame (79, Quad 3) but they’ve won four true road games in league play, two of which are Quad 1 wins. A 5-6 record in Quad 1 and 2 games is enough to keep them in and around the bubble for now.

ST. JOHN’S (NET: 81, NBC: Off the bubble): Since beating Arizona in California on Dec. 21st, St. John’s has now lost six of their last eight games. The only team that they have beaten in that stretch is DePaul, who they swept on Saturday with a road win. That’s the third Quad 1 win for this group, but with eight losses on the season — including a loss at home against Vermont (101) — the Red Storm have work to do.

VCU (NET: 41, NBC: Play-in game): The Rams avoided one of the landmines on their schedule as they went into Philly and knocked off La Salle. VCU is now 15-5 overall with a Quad 1 (LSU, 24) and Quad 2 (at Charleston, 124) win. The Rams have a ton of work left to do, but the fact that their worst loss is against Tennessee (59) on a neutral court and that there are a number of potential Quad 1 wins left on their league schedule will help quite a bit.

RHODE ISLAND (NET: 53, NBC: First four out): The Rams avoided one of the landmines left on their schedule, winning at St. Bonaventure on Saturday, but they are not in a great spot at the moment. URI is on the wrong side of the bubble right now, and while every team in the power conferences are playing one or two Quad 1 games a week, URI has just two left on their schedule — their two games against Dayton (5).

EAST TENNESSEE STATE (NET: 49, NBC: 12): The Buccaneers are in a pretty good spot right now thanks to a win at LSU (24) in December. They’re 17-3 overall with a pair of Quad 1 wins, but they do have one bad loss — at North Dakota State (159) — which means that they cannot take step on another landmine during league play. Winning out in the regular season is the only option here.

YALE (NET: 60, NBC: 12): The Elis are in this conversation because they don’t really have a bad loss to speak of. Their “worst” loss was a road game at San Francisco (!00), and if North Carolina gets Cole Anthony back, then that loss is not going to look nearly as bad by Selection Sunday. Their problem is a lack of quality wins. They won at Clemson (75), which is barely a Quad 1 win. That’s their only win that didn’t come against Quad 3 or 4 opponents. That’s not going to change in the Ivy. I think they need to win out and lose to Harvard in the Ivy title game to have a real at-large chance.

LOSERS

MEMPHIS (NET: 42, NBC: 10): Oh, Memphis. Two days after losing by 40 at Tulsa (65), the Tigers turn around and blow an 11-point lead in the final five minutes at home against SMU (68). They aren’t in real trouble yet, but it is worth noting that they have not beaten a single team in the top 45 in the NET and that their three best wins — N.C. State (45), Tennessee (59) and Cincinnati (56) — are teams that may not make the NCAA tournament.

PITT (NET: 74, NBC: Off the bubble): On the one hand, the Panthers have a couple of really nice home wins — Florida State (12) and Rutgers (19). On the other hand, they have a couple of really ugly losses — Wake Forest (104) and Nicholls (180), both at home. If Cole Anthony returns and North Carolina wakes up it could end up being a game-changer for the Panthers, who have swept the Tar Heels.

TEXAS (NET: 67, NBC: Off the bubble): Texas rallied, and ultimately lost, at home against LSU (24) on Saturday, which is a tough blow for the Longhorns. LSU is a Quad 1 opponent, and the Longhorns have some ground they need to make up. They’ve now lost three in a row and five of their last seven games, and a November win at Purdue (37) does not look quite as good now as it did at the time.

VIRGINIA TECH (NET: 44, NBC: Last four byes): The Hokies may go down as the biggest loser of the weekend. Playing at Boston College (164), Virginia Tech suffered their first Quad 3 loss of the season despite the fact that the Eagles shot just 11-for-27 from the free throw line. That’s just brutal. Bubble teams need to avoid these landmines, and Mike Young’s team couldn’t. The good news? They have three Quad 1 wins — including Michigan State (10) on a neutral — and they all came away from home. It’s not all bad.

LIBERTY (NET: 50, NBC: 12): The Flames just killed their hope of getting an at-large. The Flames are 0-1 in Quad 1 games, 1-0 in Quad 2 games (Akron on a neutral) and 2-1 in Quad 3 games. They have 14 wins over Quad 4 opponents and just lost to Stetson (309). They’re frauds.

TENNESSEE (NET: 59, NBC: Next four out): Tennessee missed on a great chance to add a marquee win to their resume when they lost at Kansas (3) on Saturday. The Vols had won four of their last five prior to that game, and it looks like they’ve gotten their season turned around. They are 12-7 overall but just 3-7 against the top two quadrants and they have yet to beat a top 40 team. They still play seven Quad 1 games, and that doesn’t include Arkansas or Florida at home. The Vols are in a good spot if they can get hot.

BYU (NET: 27, NBC: 10): The Cougars have really good computer numbers, and they do have some quality wins to their name — at Houston (36), Virginia Tech (44) and Utah State (73) on neutrals — but after losing at San Francisco on Saturday, BYU now has three Quad 2 losses and a 4-7 record against the top two Quads. With games remaining against Saint Mary’s (40) and Gonzaga (4) at home, BYU should be OK if they can get one of those and avoid the landmines.

MISSISSIPPI STATE (NET: 52, NBC: Next four out): There’s not a lot to like about Mississippi State’s resume right now. They have one win over a top 75 team this season — Arkansas (34) at home — and their only road win came at Coastal Carolina. They’s lost to Louisiana Tech (91) at home and New Mexico State (109) on a neutral floor. What am I supposed to be impressed with?

N.C. STATE (NET: 45, NBC: Last four byes): The Wolfpack have a 14-6 record to go along with solid computer numbers and three Quad 1 wins, two of which came on the road. The issue with their resume, outside of a lack of elite wins, is a pair of losses to Georgia Tech (93). Today’s came on the road. N.C. State has four games left against top ten teams, including three at home. They’ll have their chances to add to this profile.

DEPAUL (NET: 57, NBC: Last four byes): Saturday’s home loss to St. John’s (81) is not going to do any favorites for DePaul, who now has as many Quad 3 losses (three) as they have Quad 1 wins. It doesn’t help matters that four of their next five are on the road, starting with a visit to Seton Hall (13) on Wednesday. The Blue Demons have lost six of their last seven games. The next two weeks will determine where they play in March.

LEFT TO PLAY

SATURDAY

No. 7 Dayton at RICHMOND, 6:00 p.m.
No. 15 Kentucky at No. 18 TEXAS TECH, 6:00 p.m.
Kansas State at ALABAMA, 6:00 p.m.
Washington State at UTAH, 7:00 p.m.
NOTRE DAME at No. 5 Florida State, 8:00 p.m.
SAINT MARY’S at LMU, 9:00 p.m.
WASHINGTON at No. 23 Colorado, 9:00 p.m.
No. 22 Arizona at ARIZONA STATE, 9:30 p.m.
Colorado State at UTAH STATE, 10:00 p.m.

SUNDAY

VIRGINIA at Wake Forest, 12:00 p.m.
No. 11 Michigan State at MINNESOTA, 3:00 p.m.
Fordham at SAINT LOUIS, 3:00 p.m.
XAVIER at Creighton, 4:00 p.m.
Loyola-Chicago at NORTHERN IOWA, 4:00 p.m.
OHIO STATE at Northwestern, 6:30 p.m.

Geo Baker rescues No. 24 Rutgers with last second shot

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PISCATAWAY, NJ — Geo Baker had struggled for nearly a month after breaking his thumb. That seemed to end Saturday with two 3-pointers in just over two minutes.

Baker hit a 3 with 1.2 seconds left to send No. 24 Rutgers past Nebraska 75-72 to raise the Scarlet Knights’ home record to 14-0.

After missing a 3-pointer with 17 seconds remaining, Baker got the ball after a rebound from Akwaski Yeboah, and Rutgers’ unquestioned leader waved off his teammates before drilling the final shot on a step-back jumper.

“It definitely helped my confidence to see the ball go through the hoop, especially like that,” Baker said. “So I’m feeling really good right now.”

So is his thumb.

Baker ditched the splint he’d been wearing since the break, saying his thumb was feeling a lot better. Entering in the game, Baker was 4-of-18 shooting in three games since returning from injury after missing three games, and started this game 0 of 6 before going 2 of 3 to end the game.

Rutgers (15-5, 6-3 Big Ten) was up 14 early in the second half before Nebraska (7-13, 2-7) went on a 22-7 run over seven minutes to lead 63-62 on two foul shots by Charlie Easely with 7:49 to go. Nebraska went ahead by six with just over three minutes left before Baker and Yeboah hit 3-pointers on back-to-back possessions to tie it at 72 with 1:59 to go.

“He’s a big-time player,” Nebraska coach Fred Hoiberg said of Baker. “Give him credit for stepping up and knocking down the biggest shots of the game.”

Rutgers had four double-digit scorers, with Yeboah leading the way with 20 points. Caleb McConnell and Jacob Young each had 12 and Montez Mathis 10.

Nebraska, down 38-33 at the half, was led by Cam Mack with 19 points while Thorir Thorbjarnarson had 17 points and eight rebounds. Myles Johnson had nine points on 5-of-5 shooting with 11 rebounds and five blocks for Rutgers.

While it wasn’t pretty, Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell was pleased his team was able to grind out a win.

“Our defense wasn’t great, but it was great when it needed to be, and our offense, too, so I’m happy for that,” Pikiell said. “It’s how you have to win games sometimes — you have to grind them out. And I’m an old-fashioned grinder and I appreciate those kinds of games where you’re not at your best and you still find a way to win.”

POLL IMPLICATIONS

After receiving an AP Top 25 ranking for the first time since 1979, Rutgers went 1-1 with a close loss at No. 19 Iowa. That should be good enough to keep Rutgers right about where it is.

B1G Win

Rutgers has beaten Nebraska twice, its first time going 2-0 against a Big Ten opponent since joining the conference in 2014.

“Those are big things. There’s a lot of good teams in this league,” Pikiell said. “They say you need to climb the ladder one step at a time and that’s something that we needed to do.”

BIG PICTURE

Rutgers: Now comes the hard part. 10 of the Scarlet Knights’ final 12 games are against teams ranked or receiving votes in the AP Top 25.

Nebraska: A tough season continues. Falling well below .500 overall and in league play, the Cornhuskers are trying to stay out of the Big Ten basement.

UP NEXT

Rutgers: Hosts Purdue on Tuesday.

Nebraska: Hosts Michigan on Tuesday.

More AP college basketball: https://apnews.com/Collegebasketball and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25

Ayo Dosunmu jumper gives No. 21 Illinois 64-62 win at Michigan (VIDEO)

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Ayo Dosunmu did it again.

Illinois’ sophomore star and leading scorer finished with 27 points, none of which were bigger than the final shot of the game as Dosunmu hit a foul line jumper over Zavier Simpson with 0.5 seconds left on the clock to beat Michigan in Ann Arbor:

It’s the sixth straight win for the Illini, who have climbed all the way up to No. 21 in the AP poll, and no one has been more influential in that run than Dosunmu. He’s averaging 19.0 points and 5.4 assists over the last five games, and in a conference where winning road games is notoriously difficult, the Illini have won at Wisconsin, at Purdue and at Michigan during that stretch.

For the time being, Illini sits in sole possession of first place in the Big Ten regular season standings, a half-game in front of Michigan State; the Spartans play at Minnesota on Sunday afternoon.

So soak it in, Illini fans. This is what you have been waiting for, and this is why your school hired Brad Underwood. The list for National Coach of the Year is long, but there are not many that, as of now, should find themselves listed above Underwood. This team is not a fluke. Dosunmu and Trent Frazier are playing as well as any backcourt duo in the league, and the fact that every team in the Big Ten has a star big man on their roster means that there are not many teams that will be able to take advantage of the slow-footed Kofi Cockburn.

This team is fun.

At the same time, there are some real concerns that we can take away from Michigan. For starters, Isaiah Livers is clearly not back to 100 percent. He started and scored seven points on Saturday, but midway through the second half he landed awkwardly after being fouled on a dunk attempt and aggravated the injury. He left the game after making two free throws. He went back to the locker room at one point, and did not return to the game until there were 0.5 seconds left; he was the inbounder.

Without Livers, Michigan has an entirely different dynamic. He’s the perfect fit as a playmaking four. He can make threes, he’s the leading scorer in the program and he has the size and athleticism to guards threes or fours. It’s not a coincidence that Michigan is 1-4 in Big Ten play since he got injured.

The other part of it is that the Wolverines really should have won this game. They missed five free throws, including a front-end, with the score 62-60 in the final two minutes. Then, with 52 seconds left on the clock, Juwan Howard opted not to go two-for-one, and it allowed Illinois to have the final possession of the game. Those are critical errors that good teams cannot and will not make.

And on Saturday, it cost Michigan.